We all know someone who responds to “How was your day?” with a string of gripes.
To many of us, that kind of negativity may seem toxic.
But Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist and author of “The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem,” argues that complaining can actually have a positive effect on your daily life.
But there is a caveat. You have to complain the right way, or the opposite effect will occur.
The problem with complaining to vent
In 'The Squeaky Wheel,' Winch wrote:
'Today, most of us complain almost solely to vent our emotions. Venting used to be no more than a side benefit of tackling a complaint, an emotional perk we earned by taking the initiative to address a problem. But now, venting has gone from garnish to main dish.'
Winch told Business Insider that these days, people don't voice their complaints to those with the power to fix them.
For example, if someone is upset with his spouse, he might just complain to a friend rather than telling his spouse what is making him unhappy, Winch told Business Insider.
This kind of complaining, according to Winch, is ineffective. You might temporarily feel satisfied to have your feelings validated. However, soon the feeling of helplessness will set in, and you'll feel worse than when you started.
The benefits of complaining the right way
An effective complaint is about an issue that can be remedied, and is addressed to someone who has the power to fix it.
For example, calling a company helpline when your laptop won't turn on is an effective complaint. So is telling a friend that she often calls at a time you don't want to be disturbed.
Winch told Business Insider that complaining effectively can make people feel empowered.
'When we bring up something with a friend or a spouse and they can actually hear us and they say, 'OK that's a good point. I'm sorry about that, I won't do that again,' we feel really good,' he said. '
We get a real charge from it, because we feel like 'Hey, I'm not just subject to the whims of the world here, I can have a say.''
Winch added that in his experience, when people make one 'successful' complaint, they are better able to assess which complaints are worth the battle and which they should let go.
People enjoy the empowerment so much that they 'don't want to tarnish it' by focusing on small and insignificant annoyances, Winch said.
How to complain effectively
Winch compares a well-structured complaint to a sandwich.
The first thing you need to consider, which Winch referred to as the 'top slice of the bread,' is how to deliver your complaint in a way that doesn't cause the person to get defensive.
It's important to 'ease into (your) complaints,' and start the conversation with an 'ear-opener,' Winch wrote, so that the recipient of your complaint will listen to what you have to say.
The next layer, the 'meat' of the sandwich, is the complaint itself. For this layer, tone is extremely important. Winch recommends that it be as non-hostile and agreeable as possible.
The last layer, the 'final slice of bread,' has two objectives. In the book, Winch wrote:
'First, it serves as that spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine (our complaint) go down, making it more difficult for the recipient to dismiss our complaint outright. Second, it increases the listener's motivation to help.'
The key, according to Winch, is to help the other person to absorb your complaint easily.
A good way to end the complaint, for example, is to make clear that any action he takes to remedy your concerns will be rewarded with gratitude rather than an accusation of wrongdoing, he said.
The dangers of not complaining
While Winch advocated putting a stop to ineffective complaining, he cautioned against not complaining at all about things that matter to you.
He offered the example of a senior associate at a law firm who was passed over for a promotion two years in a row. The associate was unwilling to speak up because he wanted to be seen as a 'team player.'
Winch told Business Insider that the associate was showing the partners that he was passive, unassertive, and unwilling to fight for himself
Before you complain, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Can I remedy the situation?
2. Am I airing my complaint to someone who could actually do something about it?
3. Is it something that I consider to be a truly important part of my life?
If you answer 'yes' to all three, then it's definitely time to prepare a complaint sandwich.
If you answer 'no' to any of those questions, for the sake of your sanity and that of those around you, it might be time to let it go.
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